Virginia Ecological Services
Northeast Region

South Martha Washington Wetlands Restoration

Restoration of the South Martha Washington Wetlands will greatly enhance conservation by supporting a healthy forest ecosystem for migrating and wintering waterfowl, neotropical migrants, and other migratory and non-migratory waterbirds, as well as several rare or important plants and animals. In addition, aquatic habitats and species downstream will benefit from enhanced water quality, especially during high discharge events. 

The Great Dismal Swamp is a marshy area on the Coastal Plain Region of southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina. It is located in parts of southern Chesapeake and Suffolk in Virginia, as well as northern Gates, Pasquotank, and Camden Counties in North Carolina. Along the eastern edge runs the Dismal Swamp Canal, completed in 1805. Essential to the swamp ecosystem are its water resources, native vegetative communities, and varied wildlife species. The Great Dismal Swamp's ecological significance and its wealth of history and lore make it a unique wilderness. It is one of the last large and wild areas remaining in the Eastern United States. After centuries of logging and other human activites which were devastating the swamp's ecosystems, the U.S. Fish and WIldlife Service's Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refufe was created in 1973 when the Union Camp Corporation of Franklin, Virginia donated 49,100 acres of land. The Refuge consists of over 111,000 acres of forested wetlands. Lake Drummond, a 3,100 acre natural lake, is located in the heart of the swamp. Outside the boundaries of the refuge, the state of North Carolina has preserved and protected additional portions of the swamp, as the Great Dismal Swamp Natural Area.

The Great Dismal Swamp harbors over 200 species of birds. Approximately 70 species of migratory birds nest in the Swamp. The Great Dismal Swamp also has important human significance: it provided refuge for runaway slaves and was officially designated as a link in the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom in 2003.

Map shpwing the boundaries of the South Martha Washington Wetlands Restoration Project

The Great Dismal Swamp was historically heavily ditched for silviculture access and cropland conversion. The impact of these human activities is on-going. Throughout the remnant swamp, peat soils have subsided and weakened mature forest stands in areas that were ditched. Hurricane winds in 2003 felled thousands of acres of these unstable trees. Understory vegetation has suffered from inadequate seasonal hydrology, as well as lack of fire. Use of prescribed burns is precluded by a lack of water for fire suppression. In ditched areas of the Swamp, drainage reduces the quality of cover and forage for migratory birds, and eliminates the potential for reestablishment of the federally listed endangered red-cockaded woodpecker. In order to provide suitable recovery habitat for the red-cockaded woodpecker, hydrology restoration is needed to facilitate prescribed burns. Once suitable habitat is restored, the Red-cockaded Woodpecker Recovery Plan (PDF - 1.7MB) calls for establishment of a new red-cockaded woodpecker colony.

The current project includes hydrological restoration of 9,580 acres of ditched forested wetlands that span the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Viriginia and North Carolina and Dismal Swamp State Park in North Carolina. Restoration activities will include installation of sheetpile and water control structures in man-made ditches to retain and filter precipitation and culverts under road fill to restore flow between separated areas of the Swamp. Construction activities are fundedby a $1.4 million grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund. The project is a joint effort among the U.S. Fish and Wildlfie Service Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, Ducks Unlimited, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, and North Carolina Division of State Parks with technical support from U.S. Geololgical Survey for hydrological monitoring.


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South Martha Washington Wetlands

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Last updated: December 6, 2012
All images by FWS unless otherwise noted.